With the uncertainty of quarantine dictating our current social norms, a looming question many of us face going forward is this: how do we re-engage in society post-isolation with purpose and meaning? Put another way, to revise and reconsider Thoreau’s famous dictum: how do we now reenter culture as a collective people committed to live “deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if [we] could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when [we] came to die, discover that [we] had not lived?”
A lesson I hope won’t be overlooked coming out of isolation is the importance of engaging in our local communities. As we have customized our lives to fit the constraints of quarantine, we have already trained ourselves to scale down to a local level. Now, more than ever, supporting local businesses is crucial to maintaining the economic integrity of local communities, and the push to “buy local” has gained more steam under the implementations of covid-19 than it ever did with ecological warnings. The inability to travel anywhere other than the grocery store or essential businesses means that we have learned to engage in activities allowed under certain, more local, conditions.
Practically, this new prioritization strategy necessitates living only within one’s local community and meditating on the immediate effects we can have on our neighbors. In an article analyzing the new role of local leaders during coronavirus, Andy Crouch argues that “we have become accustomed to culture being shaped ‘somewhere else’– by elected officials, especially national ones; by celebrities; by media.” This virus is not entirely endured or solved on the national level by elected officials alone—the virus is an intimate problem close to home that requires the cooperation of each member of a community on an individual scale. Now, more than ever, people are recognizing their agency within their local circles; not everyone can participate in research for the vaccine, but almost everyone can support a local business, create art for front line workers, support a local food pantry, or assist in community fundraising efforts. Everyone is vital in their own way; this is a crucial point to make, especially for the majority of society that feels powerless in the midst of an uncontrollable pandemic. For example, John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” series has become a massive hit in quarantine by highlighting local heroes in small communities. Being effective or purposeful in this time does not entail impacting the most amount of people possible with the most groundbreaking solutions, but instead it entails the investment of individuals in their local communities.
It is my hope that this is a lesson continued beyond the scope of the virus. To realize that our sphere of influence starts at home, and that some of the most significance improvement to society we can make originates from investing in community, is to adopt a perspective that has been largely overlooked by society. The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to live into our scale of responsibility, which is human and feasible. It has slowed us from the blurred acceleration that was daily life to a human pace; from speedy international travel to walks around the neighborhood, from a daily flurry of social activity to extended time with family, from the ability to reach farther to the necessity to pull back. Many of us are seeing our communities with new eyes, or even for the first time. In an article on loneliness, Jill Lepore indicates that modern divisions between the self and world, and the heightened role of individuals over community have served to detach many from the world immediately around us. The philosophy of self-sufficiency is ultimately a lie, and one that severs us from the communities we so desperately need.
To refuse the rhetoric of detachment and intentionally focus on our immediate neighborhood is to change the way we view our roles in society. Ryan Streeter in his argument to renew localism indicates that localism is vital for the 21st century considering “America has grown too big and complex for one-size-fits-all federal solutions to enduring problems; and that our civic culture is healthiest when our clannishness is channeled into communities that lie close to home.” On the other side of the pandemic, I hope we can invest in local governments to enact change, that we can learn to understand the problems our neighbors face and work to solve them, and that we can realize our responsibilities lie within mediating institutions.